A Christmas Story

For the last several years, each Christmas I’ve written a story for the incredibly supportive Leeds Book Club. 2014 is no exception. This time it features Annabelle Harper, who some of you might already know from Gods of Gold. This is set between that book and the sequel, Two Bronze Pennies, which will be published in the UK in April 2015. Want to read it? Go here.

Annabelle Atkinson and Mr. Grimshaw

Annabelle Atkinson is deep at the heart of Gods of Gold. The whole idea began with her, really. But she made her first appearance in this story I gave to Leeds Book Club a couple of years ago. And after that, she would leave me alone; she still hasn’t.

But, as the book launch for Gods of Gold is tomorrow night, here’s the first time Annabelle showed herself. A little different, a little younger, but still recognisable…

Inspired by the painting Reflections on the Aire: On Strike, Leeds 1879, by Atkinson Grimshaw


On both sides of the river rows of factory chimneys stood straight and tall and silent, bricks blackened to the colour of night. Smoke was only rising from a few today, but the smell of soot was everywhere, on the breath and on the clothes. It was the shank of an October afternoon and the gas lamps were already lit, dusk gathering in the shadows.
He stood and looked at the water. Where barges should be crowded against the warehouses like puppies around a teat there was nothing. Just a single boat moored in the middle of the Aire, no sails set, its masts spindly and bare as a prison hulk.
He coughed a little, took the handkerchief from his pocket and spat delicately into it. This was the time of year when it always began, when men and women found their lungs tender, when the foul air caught and clemmed in the chest and the odour from the gasworks cut through everything so that even the bitter winter snow tasted of it.
What sun there was hung low in the west, half-hidden by clouds. A few more minutes and he’d be finished then walk home to Knostrop, leave the stink and stench of Leeds for trees and grass and the sweet smell of fresher air. First, though, he needed to complete the sketch, to capture these moments.
Tomorrow he’d start in the studio, to try and find the mood that overwhelmed him now, Leeds in the still of the warehousemen’s strike, no lading, no voices shouting, no press of people and trade along the river.
“What tha’ doing?”
He turned. He hadn’t heard her come along the towpath. But there she was, peering over his shoulder at the lines on the pad, the shadings and simple strokes that were his shorthand.
“Tha’ drawing?”
“Sketching,” he answered with a smile and slipping the charcoal into his jacket pocket.
“Aye, it’s not bad,” she told him with approval, reaching out a finger with the nail bitten short and rimmed with dirt. “I like that,” she said, pointing at the way he’d highlight the buildings as they vanished towards the bridge, hinting at the cuts and alleys and what lay beyond.
“Thank you.”
He studied her properly, a girl who was almost a woman, in an old dress whose pattern had faded, the hem damp and discoloured where she’d walked across the wet grass. She wore her small, tattered hat pinned into her hair.
At most she was twenty, he judged. As she opened her mouth to speak he could see that one of her teeth was missing, the others yellowed, and her face held the start of lines that belonged to a woman twice her age. Her cheeks were sunk from hunger, the bones of her wrists like twigs. But her eyes were clear and full of mischief. She carried a bundle in her left hand. At first he thought she was a ragpicker, done for the day; then he noticed how she cradled it close and understood it was what little she owned in the world.
“What’s your name?” he asked.
“Anabelle Atkinson, sir,” she replied with the faintest of smiles. “Me mam said she wanted summat nice around her.”
He nodded, watching the water and the sky again. In a minute the sky would part, leaving the sun pale as lemon reflecting on the river. Perhaps the last sun of the year, except for a few days when the sun would sparkle on the snow around his home. He held his breath for a moment, ready to work quickly.
“My name’s Atkinson, too,” he said distracted by the light, committing it to memory.
“Happen as we’re related, then.” He could feel her eyes on him. “But mebbe not.”
“It’s my middle name,” he explained quietly, “but I prefer it to my Christian name.”
“Why’s that, then?”
Very quickly he fumbled in his pocket, drawing out coloured pencils and adding to the sketch, the reflections on the river, the gold of a fading sun mingling with the browns and greens of the dirty water, smudging with the edge of his hand, thinking, putting it all away in his memory for tomorrow when he’d sit in the studio with his paints.
“It suits me better,” he answered her finally, squinting at his work, then at the scene before adding some more touches.
“That’s right,” she said slowly, as he was about to add more umber to the water. “That’s it.” There was awe in her voice, as if she couldn’t believe nature could be captured that way. “It looks alive.”
“It’s just preparation,” he explained. “I’ll paint it soon.”
“That what you are, then? An artist?”
“I am.”
He was a successful one, too. Whatever he put on canvas sold, almost before it had dried. For the last nineteen years it had been his living, since he broke away from the tedium of being a railway clerk, the job he thought might crush his heart. With no training and only the support of his wife, he’d known that painting could make his soul sing. These days he was a wealthy man, one who’d made art pay him well. Now they knew him all around the country; in London any man would deign to receive him.
“You must make a bob or two.”
Grimshaw smiled.
“I get by.”
“You’ve got good clothes and you talk posh.”
He chuckled.
“Don’t be fooled. I’m not as posh as you’d think. I grew up in Wortley and my father worked on the railways. What about you, Annabelle Atkinson? Where do you live?”
“Me mam’s in one of them houses up on the Bank.”
He knew them, squalid back-to-backs with no grass or green, some of the worst housing in Leeds. No good air and the children ragged as tinkers’ brats. It was where the Irish lived, crammed together in dwellings that everyone said should be pulled down.
“How many of you?”
“Only four now. I’m not there no more, though. Had a job as a maid in one of them big houses out past Headingley.”
“Had?” He eyed her sharply.
“They didn’t like me having gentleman callers. Said it wasn’t proper for someone in my station.” She put on a voice as she spoke and her eyes flashed with anger. “Me mam won’t have me back. No room, not if I’m not bringing in a wage.”
“What are you going to do?”
She shrugged.
“I’ll find summat. There’s always work for them as is willing to graft.”
He thought of the life in her and his own children, six alive and the ten who’d died. Of his wife, twenty-two years married, with her stern face and the eternal look of weariness.
“Where are you going to sleep?”
“There’s rooms. At least when they turned me out they paid what they owed. I’ll not go short for a while.”
He looked down at the sketch. It caught everything well, and it would be a good painting, another one to bring in a good ten pounds or more. But it was a landscape unpeopled.
“Annabelle Atkinson, can you do something for me?”
“What?” she asked warily, too familiar with the ways of men.
“Just stand about ten yards down the path, that’s all.”
He tapped the drawing with a fingernail.
“I want to put you in this, that’s all?”
“Me?” She laughed. “Go on, you don’t want me in that.”
“I do. Please.”
She shook her head, smiling all the while.
“You’re daft, you are.” But she still moved along the path, looking back over her shoulder. “Here?”
“Yes. Look out over the river. That’s it. Stay there.”
He was deft, seeing how she held the bundle, her bare arms, the hem of the dress high enough to show bare ankles, and a sense of longing in the way she held herself.
“I’m done,” he told her after a minute and she came back to him.
“That’s me?” she asked.
“It is.”
“Do I really look like that?”
“That’s how I see you,” he said with a smile. She kept staring at the paper.
“You’ll put that in your painting?”
“With more detail, yes.”
“The pattern of the dress, things like that.”
Self-consciously she smoothed down the old material, her face suddenly proud, looking younger and less careworn. He dug into his trouser pocket, pulling out two guineas.
“This is for you.”
“What? All this?”
“I’m an artist. I pay my models.”
“But I didn’t do owt. I just stood over there,” she protested.
“I sketched you, and you’ll be in the painting. That makes you my model. Here, take it.”
Almost guiltily she plucked the money from his hand, tucking it away in the pocket of her dress.
“Thank you, sir,” she said quietly. “You’ve made my day, you have.”
“As you’ve made mine, Annabelle Atkinson.” He closed the sketch pad and put away the pencils and charcoal, then tipped his hat to her before walking away.
“So what is your name, then?” she asked.
“Atkinson Grimshaw.” He handed her his card. “I wish you and your baby well.”
“Me in a painting. There’s no one as’ll believe that.” She began to laugh, letting it rise into a full-throated roar, and he laughed with her.

Dickens, Chandler and Me

Heading swiftly towards the end of the year and I find myself reflecting on some of the things from the past twelve months. In writing, at least, two stand out – doing things I’d never imagined. In one case something I swore I’d never do.

A Victorian mystery? Why would I want to do that? After all, everyone and his brother (and sister) has written one. I’ve never been a fan of the Victorians. And yet…I have one coming out in April called Gods of Gold.

I blame Leeds history. I started reading about the Leeds Gas Strike of 1980, when the workers took on the council and won, and realised that people should know about this. And then I thought about a family story, one my father told me, about the landlady of the Victoria in Sheepscar (now no longer there). I’d featured her in a story before, after a fashion (and she’s in this Christmas story I wrote for Leeds Book Club this year). From there I started to dig deeper into 1980 Leeds and realised how fascinating it was. The start of organised working-class politics in this country. I wanted to write about that, too.

So all the old vows were washed away. I wanted to take people to that time, to feel the excitement, the poverty, the power and grandeur of a city hitting the peak of its power – and also into the underclass.

And then there’s the 1950s. I was born in that decade, close to the middle of it. But the more I read about it, the more I understood that I didn’t know. I’d assumed a great deal that was wrong. It began to intrigue me more and more.

I’ve always been a fan of good private detective stores – Chandler, Hammett, Ross MacDonald, etc. – and I’d enjoyed a TV show back in the ‘60s called Public Eye, about a rather down-at-heel British private detective. But there’d been little set in the 1950s about an enquiry agent, as they were known. Not in an English provincial town. That was a thought. One that blossomed.

I’m now revising that book, and I’ve discovered that I’ve ended up with ‘50s English provincial noir. Where will it go? That’s yet to be seen. But I guess I’ll find out. No title yet…

So it’s been a year of Dickens (okay, not really, he was long gone by 1890), Chandler and me. Funny how those things happen, isn’t it?